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Posts about scientific research and development as well as science and engineering breakthroughs.
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Apples Increase the Growth of Beneficial Bacteria in Our Guts, Which Improves Our Health

Science provides some very clear knowledge that is easy for us to apply (the value of vaccines, materials to use in solar panels, support needed to build a bridge, dangers of consuming small amounts of lead…). But much of our knowledge about nutrition and human health is a bit unclear. This is one of the struggles we face is using our judgement to decide how to eat and live based on what we know and what seems to be so.

Eating more fruit and vegetables than most in the USA eat is pretty clearly beneficial to our health. but exactly how much, how beneficial, how it is beneficial are questions with only varying degrees of good answers so far. Apple’s Scientists at Washington State University have concluded that nondigestible compounds in apples – specifically, Granny Smith apples – may help prevent disorders associated with obesity.

“We know that, in general, apples are a good source of these nondigestible compounds but there are differences in varieties,” said food scientist Giuliana Noratto, the study’s lead researcher. “Results from this study will help consumers to discriminate between apple varieties that can aid in the fight against obesity.”

The tart green Granny Smith apples benefit the growth of friendly bacteria in the colon due to their high content of non-digestible compounds, including dietary fiber and polyphenols, and low content of available carbohydrates. The non-digestible compounds are fermented by bacteria in the colon, which benefits the growth of friendly bacteria in the gut.

The study showed that Granny Smith apples surpass Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Red Delicious in the amount of nondigestible compounds they contain.

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Epigenetics, Scientific Inquiry and Uncertainty

Science is full of fascinating ideas. Epigenetics is one area I find particularly interesting. This previous post has a few links to learning more: DNA Passed to Descendants Changed by Your Life.

Angela Saini is one 109 people I follow on Twitter. I don’t see the point in “following” people on Twitter that you have no interest in, I only follow the small number of people that post Tweets I want to read.

In, Epigenetics: genes, environment and the generation game, Angela Saini looks at the confused state of current scientific understand now. It is very difficult to tell if, and if so, to what extent, epigenetic inheritance happens in people.

Professor Azim Surani, a leading developmental biologist and geneticist at the University of Cambridge, adds that while there is good evidence that epigenetic inheritance happens in plants and worms, mammals have very different biology. Surani’s lab carried out thorough studies on how epigenetic information was erased in developing mouse embryos and found that “surprisingly little gets through” the reprogramming process.

Professor Timothy Bestor, a geneticist at Columbia University in New York, is far more damning, claiming that the entire field has been grossly overhyped. “It’s an extremely fashionable topic right now. It’s very easy to get studies on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance published,” he says, adding that all this excitement has lowered critical standards.

Related: Epigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeMedical Study Findings too Often Fail to Provide Us Useful KnowledgeScientific Inquiry Process Finds That Komodo Dragons Don’t have a Toxic Bite After All

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Lactic Acid Bacteria in Bees Counteracted Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA in Lab Experiments

13 lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomach of bees have shown promising results as an antibiotic treatment in a series of studies at Lund University in Sweden (Open access paper: Lactic acid bacterial symbionts in honeybees – an unknown key to honey’s antimicrobial and therapeutic activities). The group of bacteria counteracted antibiotic-resistant MRSA in lab experiments. The bacteria, mixed into honey, has healed horses with persistent wounds. The formula has also previously been shown to protect against bee colony collapse.

photo of a bee on a flower

Photo by Justin Hunter

Raw honey has been used against infections for millennia, before honey – as we now know it – was manufactured and sold in stores. So what is the key to its’ antimicrobial properties? Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have identified a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria found in fresh honey, from the honey stomach of bees. The bacteria produce a myriad of active antimicrobial compounds.

These lactic acid bacteria have now been tested on severe human wound pathogens such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), among others. When the lactic acid bacteria were applied to the pathogens in the laboratory, it counteracted all of them.

While the effect on human bacteria has only been tested in a lab environment thus far, the lactic acid bacteria has been applied directly to horses with persistent wounds. The LAB was mixed with honey and applied to ten horses; where the owners had tried several other methods to no avail. All of the horses’ wounds were healed by the mixture.

The researchers believe the secret to the strong results lie in the broad spectrum of active substances involved.

“Antibiotics are mostly one active substance, effective against only a narrow spectrum of bacteria. When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat. It seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees’ health and honey against other harmful microorganisms. However, since store-bought honey doesn’t contain the living lactic acid bacteria, many of its unique properties have been lost in recent times”, explains Tobias Olofsson.

This is a very cool: “When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat.” As is the note that store bought honey doesn’t contain the living bacteria. My guess is some honey bought directly from farmers or bee-keepers, at farmer’s markets may well still have those live bacteria – but I am just guessing I may be wrong.

The next step is further studies to investigate wider clinical use against topical human infections as well as on animals.

The findings have implications for developing countries, where fresh honey is easily available, but also for Western countries where antibiotic resistance is seriously increasing.

Related: People are Superorganisms With Microbiomes of Thousands of SpeciesThe Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria CellsOur Dangerous Antibiotic Practices Carry Great RisksPotential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection Without Resistance
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Self Driving Cars Have Huge Potential for Benefit to Society

Self-driving cars was something that seemed very far-fetched when I first read Google was seriously investing in pursuing that idea as a commercially viable product (Google’s Self Driving Car – 2010 post). I quickly became convinced they were right. I still think it is questionable if they will succeed (the political issues may well be even more difficult than technical ones). But the chances of success seem reasonable and the investment in research could provide a huge payoff.

Google’s self driving cars have driven 700,000 miles without an accident already; which is amazing. Warren Buffett stated that “self-driving cars are a real threat to the car insurance business” (His company owns the GIECO car insurance company) at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in Omaha.

There are some people, stressing that this is not ready for mass market use. They are right. But, I think it is funny to see people thinking that a very early stage huge innovation in transportation not being ready today is a reasonable criticism. I am amazed that this huge innovation may actually be available before 2020. That would be incredible.

Certainly even then it will have limitations. And certainly there will be accidents. The current transportation system with humans driving cars has thosands of accidents a day and tens of thousands of deaths a year in the USA alone every year. Every year 1.2 million people die worldwide in traffic-related incidents, and over 90% of those accidents are due to human error.

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Crows can Perform as Well as 7 to 10-year-olds on cause-and-effect Water Displacement Tasks

In Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher, a thirsty bird happens upon a vessel of water, but when he tries to drink from it, he finds the water level out of his reach. Not strong enough to knock over the pitcher, the bird drops pebbles into it — one at a time — until the water level rises enough for him to drink his fill.

Highlighting the value of ingenuity, the fable demonstrates that cognitive ability can often be more effective than brute force. It also characterizes crows as pretty resourceful problem solvers. New research conducted by UC Santa Barbara’s Corina Logan, with her collaborators at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, proves the birds’ intellectual prowess may be more fact than fiction. Her findings, supported by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, appear today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable Paradigm Change New Caledonian Crow Performances.

photo of Corina Logan

Researcher Corina Logan with a great-tailed grackle and a night heron at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo is one of the sites where Logan is gathering data to compare and contrast the cognitive abilities of grackles and New Caledonian crows.
Photo Credit: Sonia Fernandez

Logan is lead author of the paper, which examines causal cognition using a water displacement paradigm. “We showed that crows can discriminate between different volumes of water and that they can pass a modified test that so far only 7- to 10-year-old children have been able to complete successfully. We provide the strongest evidence so far that the birds attend to cause-and-effect relationships by choosing options that displace more water.”

Logan, a junior research fellow at UCSB’s SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, worked with New Caledonian crows in a set of small aviaries in New Caledonia run by the University of Auckland. “We caught the crows in the wild and brought them into the aviaries, where they habituated in about five days,” she said. Keeping families together, they housed the birds in separate areas of the aviaries for three to five months before releasing them back to the wild.

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iPhone Addition as Alternative to Expensive Ophthalmology Equipment

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have developed two inexpensive adapters that enable a smartphone to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. The adapters make it easy for anyone with minimal training to take a picture of the eye and share it securely with other health practitioners or store it in the patient’s electronic record.

The researchers see this technology as an opportunity to increase access to eye-care services as well as to improve the ability to advise on patient care remotely.

The standard equipment used to photograph the eye is expensive — costing up to tens of thousands of dollars — and requires extensive training to use properly. Primary care physicians and emergency department staff often lack this equipment, and although it is readily available in ophthalmologists’ offices, it is sparse in rural areas throughout the world.

“Adapting smartphones for the eye has the potential to enhance the delivery of eye care — in particular, to provide it in places where it’s less accessible,” said Myung. “Whether it’s in the emergency department, where patients often have to wait a long time for a specialist, or during a primary-care physician visit, we hope that we can improve the quality of care for our patients, especially in the developing world where ophthalmologists are few and far between.”

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words,” he added. “Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema — blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.

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Looking Inside Living Cells

Johns Hopkins’ molecular biologist Jin Zhang explains how she uses light to see where and when within cells specific molecular processes occur and what happens when they go wrong.

Related: How Lysozyme Protein in Our Tear-Drops Kill BacteriaScience Explained: How Cells React to Invading VirusesNobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012 for Reprogramming Cells to be PluripotentWebcast Exploring Eukaryotic Cells

Massive Blast of Measles Vaccine Wiped Out Cancer In Study

Unfortunately these stories are not uncommon but the hoped for follow through of practical solutions that work at all are rare. But we keep learning and while the breakthroughs based on these news stories is rare we do keep finding new and better methods to cope with health issues.

Mayo Clinic trial: Massive blast of measles vaccine wipes out cancer

Stacy Erholtz was out of conventional treatment options for blood cancer last June when she underwent an experimental trial at the Mayo Clinic that injected her with enough measles vaccine to inoculate 10 million people.

The 50-year-old Pequot Lakes mother is now part of medical history.

The cancer, which had spread widely through her body, went into complete remission and was undetectable in Erholtz’s body after just one dose of the measles vaccine, which has an uncanny affinity for certain kinds of tumors.

Erholtz was one of just two subjects in the experiment and the only one to achieve complete remission. But the experiment provides the “proof of concept” that a single, massive dose of intravenous viral therapy can kill cancer by overwhelming its natural defenses, according to Dr. Stephen Russell, a professor of molecular medicine who spearheaded the research at Mayo.

Researchers have known for decades that viruses can be used to destroy cancer. They bind to tumors and use them as hosts to replicate their own genetic material; the cancer cells eventually explode and release the virus. Antiviral vaccines that have been rendered safe can produce the same effects and can also be modified to carry radioactive molecules to help destroy cancer cells without causing widespread damage to healthy cells around the tumors. The body’s immune system then attacks any remaining cancer that carries remnants of the vaccine’s genetic imprint.

Mayo started out giving patients 1 million infectious units and gradually cranked up the dosage — but it didn’t work until Erholtz and another patient were injected with 100 billion infectious units, he said.

While the treatment worked in Erholtz, whose tumors were primarily in her bone marrow, the results weren’t sustained in the second patient, whose tumors were largely confined to her leg muscles. Russell said researchers need to study how the nature of the tumor affects the lethality of the virus.

One challenge of health research on fatal health conditions is that the experimentation with people is usually limited to people that have no available options left from the approved treatments. So, in general they are very sick. And the great complexity of dealing with human immune systems, the variation in the disease and in people create a very difficult research environment. Thankfully we have many great scientists dedicated to finding new treatments.

Related: Virus Kills Breast Cancer Cells in LaboratoryVirus Engineered To Kill Deadly Brain TumorsUsing Bacteria to Carry Nanoparticles Into CellsWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous Cell

Open Source Seeds

I find the current status of government granted patents to be very flawed, including patenting life.

Plant Breeders Release First ‘Open Source Seeds’

A group of scientists and food activists is launching a campaign Thursday to change the rules that govern seeds. They’re releasing 29 new varieties of crops under a new “open source pledge” that’s intended to safeguard the ability of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to share those seeds freely.

Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, helped organize the campaign. It’s an attempt to restore the practice of open sharing that was the rule among plant breeders when he entered the profession more than 20 years ago.

Good for them. This needs to be supported. The crazy practices of seed companies shouldn’t be legal but they pay lots of cash to politicians and the corrupt politicians (which seems to be an awful lot of them) write bad policy and encourage bad regulation.

Even those administrators taking control of universities have subjugated the search for knowledge and improvement to seek monetary gain instead of what the universities used to prioritize. It is a shame and those that have distorted universities so much should be ashamed.

Initial efforts that lead to the bad place we find universities in now were to promote the adoption of university research. To do so they partnered with business in sensible ways. Then administrators saw money was being made and turned the priority into making money and if that meant restricting the benefits to society of university research so be it. This has created universities that have lost ethical foundations and have destroyed a big part of the value universities used to provide society.

Related: Open-Source Biotech (2006)Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Prevent Research (2009)The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in ScienceArduino: Open Source Programmable HardwareMoney Is Corrupting Our Political Process

Goats Excel at Learning and Remembering a Complex Tasks

I like research showing animals using intelligence that seems advanced, for example: Crow Using a Sequence of Three ToolsInsightful Problem Solving in an Asian ElephantBird-brains smarter than your average apeTropical Lizards Can Solve Novel Problems and Remember the SolutionsPigeon Solves Box and Banana Problem.

I also like open access science, and this has both: Goats excel at learning and remembering a highly novel cognitive task

The majority of trained goats (9/12) successfully learned the task quickly; on average, within 12 trials. After intervals of up to 10 months, they solved the task within two minutes, indicating excellent long-term memory. The goats did not learn the task faster after observing a demonstrator than if they did not have that opportunity. This indicates that they learned through individual rather than social learning.”

The individual learning abilities and long-term memory of goats highlighted in our study suggest that domestication has not affected goat physical cognition. However, these cognitive abilities contrast with the apparent lack of social learning, suggesting that relatively intelligent species do not always preferentially learn socially. We propose that goat cognition, and maybe more generally ungulate cognition, is mainly driven by the need to forage efficiently in harsh environments and feed on plants that are difficult to access and to process, more than by the computational demands of sociality. Our results could also explain why goats are so successful at colonizing new environments.

The experiment was done with domesticated goats. I also learned this from the article, which I didn’t know before:

Domestication is known to strongly affect brain size. Consistent reductions in brain size relative to body size, as well as in brain size parts, have occurred in many domestic species.

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearFriday Fun: Bird Using Bait to FishPhoto of Fish Using a Rock to Open a Clam

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More Muscle Mass Appears Linked to Longer Life

New UCLA research suggests that the more muscle mass older Americans have, the less likely they are to die prematurely. The findings add to the growing evidence that overall body composition — and not the widely used body mass index, or BMI — is a better predictor of all-cause mortality. The study was published in the in a closed science journal (it is too bad UCLA promotes such anti-science practices). The research was funded by the NIH (who also shouldn’t allow such anti-science practices).

Dr. Preethi Srikanthan: “many studies on the mortality impact of obesity focus on BMI. Our study indicates that clinicians need to be focusing on ways to improve body composition, rather than on BMI alone, when counseling older adults on preventative health behaviors.”

The researchers analyzed data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III, conducted between 1988 and 1994. They focused on a group of 3,659 individuals that included men who were 55 or older and women who were 65 or older at the time of the survey. The authors then determined how many of those individuals had died from natural causes based on a follow-up survey done in 2004.

The body composition of the study subjects was measured using bioelectrical impedance, which involves running an electrical current through the body. Muscle allows the current to pass more easily than fat does, due to muscle’s water content. In this way, the researchers could determine a muscle mass index — the amount of muscle relative to height — similar to a body mass index. They looked at how this muscle mass index was related to the risk of death.

They found that all-cause mortality was significantly lower in the fourth quartile of muscle mass index compared with the first quartile.

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